Gramsci Rush: Limbaugh on the 'Culture War'
Issue #12, March 1994
When you hear about 'the Culture War,' ladies and gentlemen, know that this is what it's all about. It's a war of competing ideas and worldviews. On one side, you have people who believe in living by a set of divinely inspired moral absolutes — or, at the very least, they believe that following such a moral code represents the best way to avoid chaos and instability. On the other side, you have people who insist that morality is simply a personal decision. Any attempt to enforce it is viewed as oppression.
Rush Limbaugh's second book of political commentary, See, I Told You So, shows every sign of being as big a hit as his first, The Way Things Ought To Be. Like Pearl Jam's second album Vs., it was shipped in massive quantities prior to release — its initial print run of two million copies set a publishing industry record — and rushed to the top of the charts after its first week out in stores. In other words, the book is exactly the sort of 'success' American leftists have traditionally dismissed out of hand. Since we at Bad Subjects try to fly in the face of conventional leftist wisdom, however, I made a point of picking it up while waiting in an airport this past December. Imagine my surprise when I opened the book to read that 'in the early 1900s, an obscure Italian communist by the name of Antonio Gramsci theorized that it would take a 'long march through the institutions' before socialism and relativism would be victorious.' I read on to learn how 'Gramsci theorized that by capturing these key institutions and using their power, cultural values would be changed, traditional morals would be broken down, and the stage would be set for the political and economic power of the West to fall' (p.87). I was taken aback and felt much the same way I had two years earlier upon learning that Nirvana's Nevermind had topped the Billboard charts. 'When did the Left get so big?' I wondered to myself.
I continued reading to find that although 'the name Gramsci is certainly not a household name...his name and theories are well known and understood throughout leftist intellectual circles,' that 'leftist think tanks worship at Gramsci's altar,' and that 'Gramsci succeeded in defining a strategy for waging cultural warfare — a tactic that has been adopted by the modern left, and which remains the last great hope for chronic America-bashers' (p.87). After my initial shock, my first intellectual response to Rush's argument was that he was right about a lot of things, but was, for obvious reasons, grossly overestimating the Left's power and influence. I mean, after all, the people who practice the sort of 'cultural studies' the Bad Subjects Collective admires really do 'worship at Gramsci's altar.' Famous names in the field like Stuart Hall and Lawrence Grossberg have devoted article after article to updating Gramscian arguments for contemporary situations. Indeed, quite a few of our own articles in Bad Subjects have strongly echoed both the style and content of Gramsci's writings. My question, however, was why a best-selling author like Limbaugh felt it necessary to point this out to his public. Why bother with the 'obscure Italian communist' and his devotees?
Throughout See, I Told You So Rush binds together arguments familiar from his radio and TV shows and The Way Things Ought To Be into a comprehensive strategy for the American right. He tries to alarm his readers by arguing that America is moving 'toward socialism and statism' because conservatives 'have lost control of...cultural institutions' (p.87). He goes on to note that 'the left has been very successful because it understands the importance of culture — of framing the debate and influencing the way people think about problems.' Rush wants his readers to know that 'the Culture War is a bilateral conflict' in which conservatives can take part: 'Why don't we simply get in the game and start competing for control of these key cultural institutions? In other words, why not fight back?' In Gramscian terms, Rush is claiming that the liberal left is the 'dominant fundamental group' in the sphere of civil society, where the masses are not militarily or legally coerced, but convinced to give their 'spontaneous' consent to the 'general direction imposed on social life' by that dominant group (An Antonio Gramsci Reader, pp. 306-7). He agrees with Gramsci's argument that the power of the ruling class must be understood both as the 'direct domination' enforced by state power and the 'hegemony' that class wins by achieving the spontaneous consent of the masses in civil society, but shares with many contemporary leftists a desire to emphasize the primacy of 'hegemony' over 'direct domination'. His argument implies that the liberal left is the United States' true ruling class, regardless of its hold on state power, because it controls the nation's cultural institutions. What sets him apart from 'the so-called 'conservative movement,'' he concludes, is that he does not have 'some personal political agenda,' and has no 'political goal' for his radio and TV shows, books, and newsletter, but only wants to 'open people's minds' and 'encourage them to be confident in themselves and the principles and values they have always held sacred' (p.88). In other words, he is not interested in the narrowly-defined field of electoral politics, but the vast plain on which the Culture War is being waged.
About a week ago I was leafing through magazines at a local newsstand and came across an article in a socialist publication offering an explanation of why the left was losing the 'Culture War'. Curiously, the author's conclusions were a mirror image of Rush's: this time it was the left that was losing ground because it had allowed its enemies to take control of cultural institutions. I suddenly realized that it was not only Rush's reference to Gramsci that had shocked me, but the fact that it was embedded in the sort of argument about culture made by leftists who 'worship at Gramsci's altar.' What we have in See, I Told You So is another example of a conservative learning to beat the left at its own game. Just as pro-lifers have schooled themselves in the aggressively non-violent tactics honed in the 60s and 70s by left-liberal demonstrators for civil rights, environmental causes, and the peace movement, Rush is schooling himself and his readers in the construction of a Gramscian argument about culture while explaining who Gramsci is and why he is so dangerous. He is thus acknowledging, perhaps unconsciously, that he has turned Gramsci on his head and made him useful to the right.
This still doesn't adequately explain Rush's intentions in naming Gramsci. Most right-wing movements that have borrowed from the left have tended to do so in a general way, adopting useful tactics without acknowledging any specific source. Rush, on the other hand, informs his readers that he is acquainted with the theoretical source for the notion of 'cultural warfare'. Does he want them to know that he is well-read, that he has done his homework? After all, most of them will have never heard of Gramsci. Or does he have some other motive? Superficially, of course, he is merely following in a whole line of red-baiters who seek to impart to a mass audience the secrets they have unearthed about dangerous lefties. On this level, Rush's reference to Gramsci is no different from J. Edgar Hoover's elaboration of Marxist thought in Masters of Deceit: What the Communist Bosses are Doing to Bring America to its Knees (1958). What's different about Rush, however, is that, unlike Hoover, he concedes the terms of debate to his enemy's argument. Indeed, throughout large portions of See, I Told You So, particularly in chapters like 'Are Values Obsolete? Or How to Win the Culture War,' 'The Politically Correct Liberal Lexicon,' and 'The Many Purposes of Culture,' Rush elaborates a notion of 'Culture War' that he admits to having found in the theories of that 'obscure Italian communist.'
I think Rush concedes the terms of debate to Gramsci for a very specific reason. As a leftist, the most frustrating thing about reading See, I Told You So is the way leftists and liberals are lumped together as 'left liberals'. 'Wait a minute,' I kept wanting to say, 'we leftists spend the vast majority of our time offering scathing critiques of liberal ideology: how can you pretend that we're part of the same bloc as liberals?' Now obviously in the realm of electoral politics the differences between liberals and leftists are glaring: vast numbers of liberals hold political office; all but a few leftists do not. In the world of culture, on the other hand, the distinction is a lot blurrier. Self-proclaimed leftists do have positions in cultural institutions like NPR, PBS, the movie and music industry, and, above all else, universities. They frequently share the same taste-preferences with liberals: glossy, expensive paperbacks — think Vintage — by multicultural and Modernist authors that are the wrong size for the shelves at Waldenbooks or B.Dalton; folk and 'world' music; natural fibers and other L.L. Bean-ware; and nouvelle or ethnic cuisine of the sort not easy to come by in Peoria. And they often do share with liberals a 'moral code' predicated on a tolerance for difference as such that actually does aspire to the cultural relativism Rush and his readers fear. By focusing all his attention on the cultural sphere Rush is thus able to transform mild-mannered liberals into leftists and take advantage of the residues of anti-communism that still saturate American society to discredit liberal ideology.
But he's also able to transform 'radical' leftists into liberals, which should tell give the American left pause. Do we who call ourselves leftists really want to be functionally equivalent to liberals? On the one hand, it would mean that we're winning the Culture War Rush is talking about, the one in which tolerance for difference, heartfelt condescension towards those 'poor' oppressed people whose lives make for vivid fiction, and an unwillingness to thwart 'diversity' by deeply probing any argument because 'everything's relative' all are winning out over the old ways, however much the right-wing backlash might have slowed them down. On the other hand, however, it would mean that we're letting things be as the ideology of 'laissez-faire' capitalism would like us to.
So what other options do we have? While there are some aspects of Rush's critique of left-liberalism that a seriously radical left might do well to adopt, there are others that are antithetical to the most fundamental leftist principles: we can't just change sides in the Culture War. What we could do, however, would be to work out a position that synthesizes elements of both the right and liberal-left and, yes, I do mean thinking dialectically.
Arguing against the educational reformers who transformed the Italian educational system in the early 1900s, Gramsci states in the prison notebooks that the new curricula will bring about a situation in which 'we will have rhetorical schools, quite unserious, because the material solidity of what is 'certain' will be missing, and what is 'true' will be a truth only of words: that is to say, precisely, rhetoric.' He laments the 'degeneration in the secondary school' where 'previously, the pupils at least acquired a certain 'baggage' or 'equipment' (according to taste) of concrete facts' but now 'the pupil does not bother with concrete facts and fills his head with formulae and words which usually mean nothing to him, and which are forgotten at once' (p.313).
Gramsci goes on to argue the virtues of a classical education, noting that 'it will always be an effort to learn physical self-discipline and self-control' (p.320) but that such effort is necessary if pupils are to learn the skills serious study requires. This is not the argument of the hyper-tolerant liberal-left Rush rails against. Indeed, it actually sounds similar to arguments made by conservatives like Allan Bloom, Bill Bennett, and Rush himself. But in the end, it is fundamentally irreconcilable with such arguments' intentions, because Gramsci's aim is 'to produce a new stratum of intellectuals' from the proletariat in order to make possible the overthrow of capitalism. The point here is that it is quite possible to critique the left-liberal notions Rush attacks without ultimately adopting a conservative position. Just as Rush argues that the left has no monopoly on cultural warfare, we must assert that the right has no monopoly on the 'critique of pure tolerance' that questions the virtues of the 'freedom' made possible by letting things be.
I could have written an article detailing the ways in which Rush distorts the 'facts', noting how he makes the mistake of equating leftists with liberals, how he misrepresents Gramsci by turning him into an atheist above all else, and how he grossly underestimates the power conservatives already have in cultural institutions. This would have been the sort of article Noam Chomsky writes, a rational accounting of the ways in which conservatives distort the truth. And I wouldn't want to argue that there is no place for such an article. However, as members of the Bad Subjects on-line collective recently argued in a thread on Chomsky and intellectuals, there is a way in which the absolute conviction Chomsky has in his own correctness and the confidence with which he debunks mainstream conceptions can come across as self-righteous, or even paranoid, and thereby serve to further discredit the left. Not to mention the fact that, if the right is busy learning from the left, while the left is convinced that the right has nothing to offer, the right is going to end up with a lot more useful knowledge about contemporary society. My conclusion, then, is that serious leftists should borrow from the right in order to transcend it. As you may know, this is not a new thesis for Bad Subjects.
The editor's column in issue #1, Steven Rubio's 'Dan Quayle Was Right,' our manifesto in issue #7 this past September, an numerous other pieces have argued similar points. However, as Gramsci says, when a group challenges notions people take for granted, such as the idea many left-liberals have that the right should merely be denounced or dismissed, it is necessary for that group 'never to tire of repeating its own arguments (though offering literary variation of form),' for 'repetition is the best didactic means for working on the popular mentality' (p.340).
Charlie Bertsch is a member of the Bad Subjects Collective. He is a graduate student in English at UC-Berkeley and he plans to write his dissertation on the relationship between modernist aesthetics and popular culture. He can be reached at the following Internet address: firstname.lastname@example.org.